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Catherine Kemnitz

To Retain Talent, GCs Should Prioritize Mission Statements

January 2022
By Catherine Kemnitz

This article was originally published on Law360 and is reposted here with permission.

It's almost a cliché now, but it nevertheless bears repeating that a year and a half ago, the lives of most Americans changed dramatically.

So did the entirety of the country's work culture. Businesses had to quickly change course to manage crises and adapt to remote work, and employees had to find a new approach to work-life balance — one that kept them engaged, employed and healthy.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the "Great Resignation" that followed — droves of people leaving the workforce — has challenged every corporation and every employee at every level, especially legal departments.

My firm conducted a study last year in collaboration with Wakefield Research to measure the effect COVID-19 has had on corporate legal department values and the general counsel that lead them. The 2021 GC Survey Report on In-House Legal Department Mission Statements, Goals & Objectives, which included responses from 220 general counsel at companies with more than $250 million in annual revenue, found that legal leaders are feeling acute strain from "managing corporate ethics while in the middle of a global health crisis."

For legal departments trying to better manage values and mitigate the impact of the Great Resignation by attracting new talent and retaining the blue-chip talent they require to be successful partners to the business, the results from the study also uncovered a potential solution — the prioritization of departmental mission statements.

The Hidden Effects of COVID-19 on Legal Departments

Our survey examined how COVID-19 impacted legal leaders trying to reconcile changing business objectives with the values of their department and broader organization. The findings suggest a profound pandemic-related shift in legal department values.

COVID-19 has been tough on in-house counsel, forcing additional stresses upon them, including unprecedented risks, privacy issues, layoffs and pandemic-related enterprise legal concerns.

But handling COVID-19-related risks has come at a steep price: a lack of adherence to the departmental values that general counsel have spent recent years building and cultivating.

While 79% of the respondents to the survey believe they must function as the conscience of the company, the very same number believe COVID-19-related issues forced them to prioritize company risk mitigation over departmental core values, which can include complying with relevant laws and regulations; an emphasis on social responsibility and human interests; promotion of diversity and inclusion; addressing social, environmental and human rights concerns; and development of legal team talent.

Prioritizing Values Amid the Great Resignation

These findings come at a time when prioritization of corporate values may be more important than ever, when employees in every industry are reassessing their careers and personal lives.

Employees' priorities and goals have evolved into something radically different from pre-pandemic aspirations. Knowledge workers — and legal professionals in particular — are in large numbers rejecting working conditions, practices and remuneration that don't align with their personal goals. One of the key factors playing into it is employees' lack of belief in the ethos of an organization.

In addition, as legal teams have seen their workloads balloon amid the pandemic, lawyer burnout is a key pain point general counsel must address in order to continue to attract and retain the best talent.

Survey responses suggest that the creation and utilization of a legal department mission statement may help general counsel in that effort. The prioritization of cost reduction over core department values was significantly lower among those legal departments with a mission statement — 58% — than those without — 75%.

Similarly, while 82% of the respondents without a mission statement said pandemic-associated risk forced their departments to deprioritize value-oriented initiatives — such as prioritization of an ethics-based culture and upholding commitment to staff health and well-being — fewer of those respondents with a mission statement said the same.

General counsel are increasingly recognizing lawyer burnout as a real threat to talent retention. The emergence of new legal risks during the pandemic led to substantially increased workloads, which in turn has led to overworked attorneys.

Not wanting to lose capable lawyers, general counsel have been experimenting with ways to ease the pain and reinforce departmental principles and morals — 86% agreed that having a documented core set of values made it easier to navigate challenges, especially those brought on because of COVID-19.

With the understanding that a clear set of codified values can help legal leaders establish priorities with more confidence, general counsel must now embark on a new journey: crafting or refining thoughtful mission statements to help improve departmental culture, achieve better results and retain talent.

What Is a Mission Statement and Why Is It Important?

The purpose of a mission statement is to articulate a legal team's values and reaffirm in-house counsel's commitment to their roles. It is essentially a promise between a company, the legal department, and its lawyers to follow a core set of values. And as more and more employees question the status quo of their corporate jobs, articulating and reaffirming that commitment becomes imperative.

Mission statements also provide in-house counsel with more clarity by enabling them to develop a better understanding of the values they seek to uphold as part of that mission, as well as providing guardrails when it comes to hiring new talent and selecting new partners.

Even more than other departmental mission statements, legal department versions are enterprise-critical. Many, if not all, of the company's hard choices will hit the legal department. As a result, a values-based approached within legal will inherently permeate throughout the broader enterprise.

To be sure, most general counsel understand the importance of these values. Not only do most agree that having a core set of values made it easier to navigate pandemic challenges, 87% of general counsel responding to the survey report having rejected working with legal providers who do not share their department or company values. And 4 of 5 general counsel report making tough decisions based on dedication to the core values of their department.

While most general counsel — 90% of respondents — believe they give lawyers within their legal department a clear sense of the department's mission, many are — alarmingly — not codifying those values into a clear mission statement. In fact, a full 40% of the respondents admitted they lack a legal department mission statement reinforcing their commitment to their values and roles.

Even among the 60% of legal departments that do rely on mission statements, the Great Resignation makes it clear that it is imperative to continuously reevaluate what should be prioritized as values shift with the ever-changing environment. The findings of this report suggest departments with codified values are better able to manage crises, which can help to improve a company's bottom line, as well ensure employee well-being is addressed.

Whether refining a current statement or creating a new one, incorporating the mission statement into annual strategic legal department planning exercises is beneficial to adhering to company values and retaining talent.

5 Steps to Creating a Mission Statement

The survey results are significant in the context of the talent needs of corporate legal departments and legal's role as the driver of values-based changes in an organization.

Below are five steps to help general counsel create a meaningful mission statement and build a purpose-driven team:

1. Create a constitution.

The mission statement must not only clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of the legal department; it must codify its values and core principles. Think of the mission statement as the equivalent of a legal department constitution. Then think about the Bill of Rights: What are the values, rights and responsibilities that every member of the legal team must adhere to and hold dear?

When creating a constitution, it is critical to consider the following:

  • The mission statement for the overall company and how the legal department will serve to uphold and ensure those objectives for the team;
  • The specific role of the legal department in serving its internal business partners, and ensuring that legal enables them to function with speed while mitigating risk;
  • The role of the legal department in serving its talent within its own department, and enabling and fostering that talent by helping build skills, diversify teams, create opportunities for growth and mentorship, etc.;
  • The legal department serving as the conscience of the company, e.g., by ethically or morally codifying the environmental, social and corporate governance values that are critical in a COVID-19-adjacent world.

2. Build a living document.

Like constitutional texts, mission statements should embrace majestic generalities that enable meaningful progress, modernity and equality, even in the face of unexpected crises or events. Leaders should have contingency plans in place to ensure that overall values or business goals are not sacrificed. Planning for potential setbacks is essential.

Legal leaders must create values-specific crisis plans. Every legal department codifies contingency plans, but they need to codify plans about the role and value of legal talent, and what they are willing to sacrifice in the face of economic vulnerability or pandemic-related chaos. Then, they need to adhere to that ethos when crisis occurs.

3. Don't be afraid to amend the statement.

Just as the U.S. Constitution has been updated to reflect societal change and progress, every general counsel must consider the occasional need to reassess and reevaluate their current mission on an ongoing basis as priorities or goals change.

Considerations can include the Black Lives Matter movement, greater focus on ESG, and the Great Resignation, and how these changes inform a greater legal department mission for nurturing talent. Amendments should also be considered as companies grow and merge with or acquire others.

4. Build a mission-centric team culture.

With the mission statement as their North Star, team members should be reminded frequently to use it as their guide to becoming better partners with customers, department leaders and each other. The mission statement must be supported by regular action and investment, including regular values-based training sessions for the in-house team, and events and meetings to discuss the mission.

It can't just live on a piece of paper.

5. Make the mission inform hiring.

COVID-19 highlighted the need to focus on mental health, diversity and inclusion, as well as critical thinking. Accordingly, general counsel should build a team that lives these values while providing high-quality legal expertise.

Adherence to the departmental mission and core values must apply not only to current employees, but also to any future hires. Create mission-specific interview questions that apply to the hiring process. Make sure there is a cultural fit and that prospective employees are aware of the mission, buy into it and pledge to help live it.

A thoughtful mission statement that is dynamic, flexible, identifiable and embedded within the departmental culture equips today's law departments for the challenges of tomorrow. In this way, general counsel are better able to manage talent while keeping the corporation's bottom line in mind as the working world continues to change among certain uncertainty.

Posted by Catherine Kemnitz
Catherine Kemnitz is the Chief Legal Officer and a member of the Executive Leadership Team, at Axiom, the global leader in high-caliber, on-demand legal talent. An Executive Vice President, Kemnitz currently leads the global Legal & Compliance, Corporate Development, and Corporate Secretary functions. She also serves as the Managing Director for Continental Europe.